William Tyndale, who taught England how to read and showed Shakespeare how to write, is honored in an exhibition of some of the world’s most treasured books here at the Library of Congress.
Tyndale (1494-1536), who also taught brave men how to die, was a Catholic priest whose zeal to bring the pure word of God to the people led him to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into simple and beautiful English.
For this Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake, but his legacy endures not only in the King James Version but in the way English is spoken and written throughout the world.
By the time William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born, a generation later, Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament had been reprinted many times and smuggled throughout the kingdom to common people who never before had had much reason to learn to read. Its short, clear sentences and rich cadences had begun to create a common language and a shared frame of reference among people whose communication had long been hobbled by a cacophony of regional dialects.
Shakespeare, taking advantage of this growing literate audience, applied Tyndale’s style to the secular realm with such verve and force that his works and Tyndale’s Bible remain the crowning glories of English literature.
Only two complete copies of the 1526 Tyndale Bible, printed in Worms, Germany, have survived to this day. For a brief time, both are available to the American public as centerpieces of a special exhibition that recently opened at the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building.
“Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible” provides a rich collection of documentation devoted to Tyndale’s effort and legacy.
The display marks the first time either of the two pocket-size, 706-page copies of Tyndale’s New Testament has come to this country.
One volume is on loan from the British Library in London, and the other from the State Library of Wurttemberg in Stuttgart, Germany.
A third copy, not on display here, is held by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London but has several missing pages.
The exhibition in the library’s North Great Hall Gallery, jointly sponsored by the British Library, is a quiet array of books and images offering solid proof that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Tyndale was a despised renegade in his day, forced to flee England and harried across Europe until he was betrayed, imprisoned and executed. But the tumult and the shouting died, the clerics and the kings departed, and Tyndale’s good book endured.
When, bowing to the inevitable, King James authorized the 1611 version of the Bible, fully 83 percent of the text of the New Testament was lifted verbatim from Tyndale, along with the parts of the Old Testament he had managed to complete before he was imprisoned.
Tyndale’s translation would be astonishing for its euphony and accuracy had he done the work at a university with the support of fellow scholars. That he created such a serene masterpiece while on the run in fear for his life is almost beyond imagining.
Let not your heart be troubled over the renegade priest’s fate, because his spirit and words, including those at the beginning of this sentence, are part of the life of every English-speaking person.
The key phrase among the many that Tyndale made part of the language is “the truth shall make you free.” It explains his passion to take the message of the Bible directly to the masses instead of through Latin Masses, which were based on select passages from the Vulgate Bible translated, and substantially altered, by St. Jerome in the fourth century.
The ferocious response of the church fathers - Sir Thomas More called Tyndale “the beast” and “a hellhound” - was fueled by their fully justified fear that the New Testament’s offer of personal salvation through individual faith would undermine the power of the papacy.
And indeed Tyndale’s contemporary, Martin Luther, was busily setting Europe ablaze through his fiery denunciations of church corruption and his own translation of the Bible into everyday German.
Ironically, King Henry VIII, who had locked horns with the Vatican over divorce and remarriage, had already established his separate Church of England, with its own English Bible, two years before Tyndale’s execution.
Washington, D.C., is the last stop of a three-city U.S. tour for the show.
The free exhibit, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., will remain on view through next Saturday at the Library of Congress, 10 First St. S.E.
xxxx COMMON EXPRESSIONS ROOTED IN TYNDALE BIBLE Knight-Ridder
Here are some of the familiar phrases to come from William Tyndale’s English translation of the Old and New Testaments: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1) “And the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32) “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41) “And God said, ‘Let there be light”’ (Genesis 1:3) “Ye are the salt of the Earth.” (Matthew 5:13) “But can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (Matthew 16:3) “Take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry.” (Luke 12:19) “The powers that be are ordained in God” (Romans 13:1) “Fight the good fight of faith” (I Timothy 6:12)
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